Chinese medium education imposed in schools across Ngaba despite criticisms from Tibetan scholars and educators

Early this year, Chinese authorities quietly began enforcing an assimilationist education system in Tibetan primary schools in Ngaba (Ch: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, in the Tibetan province of Amdo. The Model 2 education system has been introduced in primary and middle schools across Ngaba including the Tsaruma Tibetan primary school in Kakhog (Ch: Hongyuan) County.

A petition dated 20 April 2020 submitted by the Tibetans in Tsaruma to local Chinese authorities was widely shared and commented upon by Tibetan bloggers and other social media users.   

A Tibetan teacher in Ngaba told TCHRD that the Model 2 education system was planned to be introduced in all schools in the spring of 2020. This system mandates the replacement of all Tibetan medium education systems with Chinese medium or Model 2. Under this system, all subjects including geography, history, chemistry, mathematics, etc. are taught in Chinese with the exception of an hour long class on Tibetan language. 

“This [Model 2] educational method is a means to destroy the Tibetan language and culture. The enforcement of this policy has no basis in law or scientific reasoning; it is a decree imposed by a handful of autocratic leaders. At high-level meetings such as the Party Congress, the authorities always attempt to justify the Model 2 policy by exaggerating the low standards of education in Tibetan schools,” added the teacher.

The plan to introduce the Model 2 system in spring 2020 was temporarily abandoned when Chinese authorities faced widespread criticism from local Tibetans. A large number of Tibetan teachers, parents, students and educators in Ngaba engaged in online discussions and published open letters and petitions urging local Chinese authorities to scrap the plan.

Among the prominent critics of the policy was the well-known Tibetan writer and public intellectual Thupten Lodoe (Pseudonym: Sabuchey), 34, who wrote an open letter on the issue for which he would later be arrested. The letter was published online in April 2020, more than a year before his detention and subsequent imprisonment to a four years and six months term. Sabuchey’s letter exposes the Chinese Communist Party’s “sinicization” ideology of Han Chinese superiority, which views all non-Chinese peoples as barbarians and uncivilised, as he writes, “The Sinicization ideology underpins the foundation, trajectory and goals of the [Chinese] nation”.



Tsaruma town, Kakhog (Ch: Hongyuan) County.

Sabuchey’s Letter

By Sabuchey

Published on 19 April 2020, Weibo

I learned that the Tibetan medium education system in Ngaba, known for its remarkable achievements, is being forcibly replaced with the second education model. Tibetan scholars, teachers and parents are engaged in thought provoking discussions in various ways, from highlighting the foundational principles of childhood education and education sciences to legislative provisions and ethnic unity.

Teachers and educators, including Atso, Palden Nyima, and Dr. Losang Choephel, have weighed in on this development with insightful observations. Others such as teachers, people’s representatives and the larger community of parents have also joined the discussions. It is hoped that this unreasonable [move to enforce the second model] will be averted at the earliest. 

The Tibetan medium education in Ngaba is an example of the most successful educational models in minority regions. It has become an exemplary and inspirational educational model for other areas in Tibet and other nationalities. So, why is there any need to change the [current] model of education? I don’t think that the government leaders are unaware of the importance of raising children in their mother tongue during the early years. By ceaselessly reasoning out in this way, their tongues have almost swelled. Since “practice is the sole criterion for testing truth”, it cannot be that one is ignorant of truth. It is impossible that they don’t know about Deng Xiaoping’s theory: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” I think something happened to the [government’s] political mindset. 

The essence of pre-modern politics is “domination”, whether based on family, nation or class, it requires a set of regulations to make the ruled obedient. But the foundation of modern politics is not about who obeys the orders of whom, or who blindly follows the dictates; it is about equal coexistence. The nation is a tool to coexist among equal human beings. All communities of equal human beings can form and organise into groups. For example, ethnic groups in the Chinese context should all be equal. The nation should not be used as a weapon to establish a unified culture and there is no system that distinguishes between high and low standards among ethnic groups. But the current discourse of politics in China under this special political context and since the bankruptcy of the class theory, is to interpret the nation-state as a continuous homogeneous entity. The state acts as a tool for the majority nationality to ensure authoritarian control over the minorities and simply pays lip service as to whether or not minority groups have cultural rights. To interpret such an authoritarian system hinges on the issue of whether the ethnic minorities are Chinese or not. This is actually a revival of Confucianism or the resurrection of the Hua and Yi distinction of destroying other cultures. These days, many Chinese political scientists are brazenly talking about this. In their view, the question of “Chineseness” is a question of explaining the reasons, processes and results of the origins of the nation. What becomes clear from such talk is the continued implementation of the Sinicization project. The Sinicization ideology underpins the origins, trajectory and the final goal of the [Chinese] nation. Such destruction of old cultural traditions occurred during the waning years of the Qing dynasty and in this way, the unalterable and irreversible commands of the emperor became “an ideal political system”.

Viewed from this background, minority language, script, and education have all become criminal. It needs no mentioning that if the Tibetan language is prioritised, there will be a system different from the one based on the Sinicization ideology. Considering the struggle to establish a unified system through the Hua and Yi distinction, to protest the Sinicization system is to protest the nation. This is what we must uncover and expose! We need to abandon this old thinking and ideas, and if this “background concept” is not broken, minority cultures and languages will not get the basic conditions to survive, let alone hold their rightful space. Still there will not be an iota of change in the leadership’s enforcement of its political direction. Therefore, the political stand of some leaders is the [sinicization] policy, which is to obey each other’s orders. To obey orders is to demonstrate the intention to enforce the [Sinicization policy].

What is liberation? What does it mean to be modern and advanced? According to Marxist ideology, we have just moved from the material base to the superstructure, and the government claims that “reform has entered the deep water”. In this deep water area, the old concepts of domination, hierarchy, ritual, and the old distinction between Han Chinese and Barbarians are being conveyed. The purpose of reform is not the preservation of old things, but to achieve political cooperation and political relations based on equal competition, and this equality is not only between peoples, but also involves gender, ethnicity, language and other differences.

For this reason, the current issue of reforming the education system in Ngaba is not just a turbulent storm but an issue of political governance in the whole of Tibet. It is a system of political discourse in the whole of China. All minority groups must become familiar with the meaning of the ‘deep water area’. Moreover, without Chinese educators and linguistic researchers recognizing the reality, the current issues will need to be repeated ad infinitum. The conflict between minority rights and the state’s interests must be discarded. If this is not done, the result will be similar to what is happening now. Not only the education departments in minority regions, but Chinese educational elites have the responsibility to resolve this issue.  

Another Tibetan writer named Shergyam compared the imposition of Chinese medium education in Ngaba to the return of the Cultural Revolution: “It would not be wrong to say that in the remote minority regions, the turbulent storm of the Cultural Revolution has returned.” He then goes on to slam the increased government practices of criminalising any effort to promote or advocate for minority languages and cultures, and asks why the minority education system is always subject to change or reform but the Chinese medium education system for Han Chinese remains the same. “The medium of education has always been Chinese for Han Chinese because it is their mother tongue, which has enabled them to produce talented and skilled professionals. In the minority regions, the mother tongue based education system is blamed. Such actions defy scientific reasoning and moral principles,” he writes.


Screenshot of an online public poll conducted on WeChat regarding different education system models.

In 2020, some 28000 online users participated in a poll on different models of education in Ngaba; the results showed an overwhelming 97 percent voting in favour of the Tibetan medium education or Model 1.

The WeChat post accompanying the screenshot asks: ‘What is the legal basis for minority nationalities to launch legal proceedings in native language? According to Article 134 of the Chinese Constitution, “Citizens of all nationalities have the right to use the spoken and written languages of their own nationalities in court proceedings. The people’s courts and people’s procuratorates should provide translation for any party to the court proceedings who is not familiar with the spoken or written languages in common use in the locality. In an area where people of a minority nationality live in a compact community or where a number of nationalities live together, hearings should be conducted in the language or languages in common use in the locality; indictments, judgments, notices and other documents should be written, according to actual needs, in the language or languages in common use in the locality.”

Opinions of a Tibetan language teacher from a secondary school in Khyungchu County

By Shergyam

 Published on 14 April 2023, Weibo

Like walking through rain clouds and mist, again [they] have begun talking about an education model. The reason why I said “again” is that this is not the first time, they have done it many times. Honestly, I am not afraid of losing my job because whatever model they enforce, I have firm belief in my ability to support myself. But it is not right to remain silent. Because for many of us, silence has cost us dearly.

First, let me briefly discuss the education model practised in the Tibetan areas or the [Tibet Autonomous Region and four provinces]. This model of education is called Model 1, wherein Tibetan is the medium of education and many subjects are taught in Tibetan.

Along with that, there is another model based on the national common language [Mandarin Chinese]. Known as the Model 2 education system, it adopts a Mandarin Chinese medium that requires teaching the majority of subjects in Mandarin Chinese. It also provides for a separate class on minority language. Then there is the last education model called the common education model, which adopts the local education model and local language as medium of instruction. As far as Tibet is concerned, the adoption of the Model 1 education system has greatly contributed towards raising educational standards and fostering educated individuals. Usually, the Model 2 system is enforced in areas where the proficiency of local [native] language is weak. But they gradually improve their local language proficiency and eventually move on to adopting the Model 1 system, which brings them great joy. Both the government and the people have wholeheartedly advanced the national education system by producing successful results from primary to middle and high schooling through the adoption of the educational model. In this way, we have established an efficient path to [protect] a nationality’s language and culture and foster educated persons in the country. 

Unfortunately, we are now witnessing again the storm of reforming the education system. I will explain the reasons why these handful of people are hellbent on replacing an education policy, which has brought much solace to Tibetans, with another model that history has proved a failure [in minority regions].

The models 2 and 3 education systems have previously been used in Tibetan areas. History has provided evidence that the model 1 system has produced far greater results and educated individuals than models 2 and 3. We have recently seen online the remarkable successes of the model 1 system in Ngaba, much greater than the model 2. Then why are some people being so adamant and obstinate in calling for the enforcement of the model 2 system? 

First, it is difficult to know who exactly issued the document and the order to change the education model. But this did not come from the central government as the current education system [model 1] has been practised through the systematic and diligent process of experiments and research with permission from the central authorities. It was applied through the tireless contributions of many Tibetan scholars and educators, which in turn has won praise from the central authorities. It is for these reasons that I said the central government might not have issued this order. Even if I don’t know the offences committed by some high officials, I would warn that if you can publicise the document, there is no need to hide it. If you can’t show it, it is illegal. 

Second, the education system should not be changed because setting a bad precedent will only contribute to the unpleasant image in our society. However, we can never produce the desired results if we allow the interests of the few to prevail over the need to establish a durable system and processes. Simply put, the learning method is one of the most important components of education. The unmistakable importance of the learning method is the use of language of instruction [in one’s native language]. Let me talk briefly about the learning method. First of all, you should be able to acquire any knowledge through a language that is most suitable for you. To understand the meaning of what is being learned, it is important to first have a level of proficiency in the language of instruction. Greater proficiency of the language will ensure higher standards and better learning opportunities. Therefore, needless to say, the education system based on native language is much better than that in other tongues. For instance, when translating something from one language to another, there will be very few if any discrepancies between the main text and the translated version if the translator’s language proficiency is high. The discrepancies are greater when the meanings of the main text remain vague and fuzzy in the translated version. If the second language [Mandarin Chinese] is used as a medium of instruction, [Tibetan] students can only learn after going through a process of translation because the medium of instruction is not their mother tongue. Therefore, discrepancies in the translation process greatly impact the educational outcomes. But there are some people who are either ignorant or indifferent about this issue; or they are simply concerned with getting job promotions.  

Third, why do they always change and reform the minority education system, but leave the Chinese medium education system untouched and stable? The bilingual system was also used in Chinese areas where it was later proved that education in one’s native language produced better results. This shed light on the fact that the mother tongue based education is an important condition for fulfilling educational objectives. Our mother tongue based education is the first model, not the second model, and let alone the third model, which failed [in Tibetan areas] because it was designed for people whose native language is Mandarin Chinese which excludes Tibetan students. 

In brief, what I wanted to say is that there are very few who understand the situation in minority regions and the officials responsible for education policies are in fact the root cause of the dismantling of the current education system. Some people can even sell their own relatives and do anything to get position and fame. The issues discussed at the [People’s Congress] meeting on 11 March 2020 were highlighted all over Mainland China. Reforming mindsets and advancing with the times. It would not be wrong to say that in the remote minority regions, the turbulent storm of the Cultural Revolution has returned. I will say this again:  For an individual, ethnic group or a nation, the mother tongue based education is not only a means to exercise one’s identity and promote love and belief but also the only path to achieve both. Initially, Chinese laws and regulations provided for the freedom to use and develop one’s native language and culture because the central authorities were well aware of the positive and negative outcomes of using one language over another as the medium of instruction. Considering this, you must not engage in uncivilised actions by blaming the mother tongue based education for such inadequacies as shortage of educational funds or lack of qualified teachers. In recent times, the mother tongue based education has become a cause for criminal prosecution since almost every issue is distorted in a way that puts all the blame on model 1 based education. The medium of education has always been Chinese for Han Chinese because it is their mother tongue, which has enabled them to produce talented and skilled professionals. In the minority regions, the mother tongue based education system is blamed. Such actions defy scientific reasoning and moral principles. If you have read this far, you must now feel infuriated or moved, it is alright to feel both. And it is alright to feel disturbed. But I urge you to think early about this issue and take prompt action.  

A Tibetan blogger with the pseudonym ‘Idiot’ makes a strong case for the mother tongue based education in Tibetan regions and calls on the Chinese authorities to think carefully about the replacement of Tibetan medium education with Chinese because it directly or indirectly concerns the student’s future prospects as well as their educational standards.


Educate the Uneducated, Learn for the Future

By Idiot

Published on 16 April 2020


Education does not mean obtaining degrees but a means to realise one’s dream for the future. 

Recently, there was a lot of discussion about whether to introduce the second model of education in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Before we learn about the final decision, an ordinary person like me is not supposed to discuss or protest the reform measures of the minority education department. But at such a critical juncture in reforming the minority education system, how or who will push open the big door to a new era of minority education emerges as an important issue. It is a significant test for [the future of] minority education and a significant cause for change. Therefore, all parties deserve attention and all views should be listened to.

Since the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Central Committee, Chinese authorities have systematically enforced the Party’s policy on ethnic minorities in Tibet. Clear from the opinions and the petition on bolstering and advancing minority education, is that educational promotion and progress in primary schools, in minority regions (from the education system and learning contents to the medium of instruction) must all be compatible with the local reality in minority regions. Most importantly, those minority groups with their own languages and scripts must be allowed to teach and learn in native languages. While the minority language should be the medium of instruction, [one should] also learn Chinese language. Time and again, students and educators in Tibetan areas face challenges in choosing between the first and second education models.་ These choices directly or indirectly impact their futures.

As is known, the rate of advancement and employment prospects of the [Tibetan] students enrolled in the second education model is much lower than those in the first model. And the second model students received mother tongue based primary education and at the same time they are expected to take the national common college entrance examination for further studies. They also have to appear for employment tests in Chinese for the national common exams or joint common tests at the provincial level. So, from many directions, students in the second education model have faced challenges to their employment prospects. 

As we all know, the second education model prioritises Mandarin Chinese [as medium of instruction] with Tibetan reduced to a single language class. The disadvantages that arise from this model of education lead to a dissonance between the educated and the educator. The first requirement of a linguistic environment is to enable wider space for learning and using language. For children brought up in their mother tongue during formative years, their lived experiences have little to do with Chinese language except for Chinese lessons taught in school. Learning in such circumstances brings no benefits to the students who instead pick up the bad habit of speaking in mixed tongues, which in narrow terms affects the future of individuals and in the larger context risks the disappearance of a minority culture. This will not bring any learning benefits, instead it will lead to vices such as mixed Tibetan-Chinese communication in the education and life of second model students.

Second, to pursue further studies, Tibetan students from poor educational backgrounds have to compete in the national common exams with the top Chinese students who have excelled at all levels of schooling in the second education model. Although official policy allows for special marks to be given to minority applicants, the very nature of cultural differences means that students who studied in the second education model in Tibetan areas do not enjoy a level playing field. 

To provide an example of students enrolled in the second education model in Tibetan areas, when teaching the word ‘overpass’ to the Chinese and Tibetan students, a clear image of an overpass appears in the mind of Chinese students but none for Tibetan students because there is no connection between an overpass and their lives, not to mention the problem of understanding the word. The mother tongue based education ensures a higher standard of learning because there is a clear understanding of the knowledge and information provided by the teacher to the students.

As they say, the survival of an ethnic group depends on the level of decay of its culture and language. At this time when a decision is yet to be taken [to enforce the second education model in Ngaba], the education departments in minority regions must think early about this issue and not commit a thousand sins by causing the loss and disappearance of minority cultures. 

We live in an era of conflicts and disputes, the age of informatization, digitalisation and globalisation. Without doubt, the mother tongue based education is the key to opening the world for minority groups. Tibetan culture should have its own place in the world. Time might prove everything and that’s what we are hopeful about. How can you ignore it!

PS: I am not an educator, so please bear with me if there is anything inappropriate in my Chinese writing.

Chinese domestic legislation provides for two different models of education to be implemented in minority regions. The Model 1 was implemented in regions where the Chinese language skills were “not good”. In these areas, the minority language of the area is to be used as the medium of instruction while introducing Chinese language as a language subject, but not as the main language of instruction.

On the other hand, the Model 2 system was implemented in regions where the Chinese language skills are “relatively good”. In these regions, the primary language of instruction is Mandarin Chinese and the minority language is secondary. The Model 2 policy does not support minority children receiving education in their mother tongue.

Past survey data has shown that Tibetan students prefer the Tibetan language as the primary language of instruction. Official Chinese statistics published in 1991 showed that Tibetan students were performing better in scientific subjects taught in their mother tongue.

Despite such evidences, Chinese authorities have in recent years imposed the Model 2 Chinese medium education in Tibetan schools  as was seen in the Dazhuka region in Sershul (Ch: Shiqu) County, Kardze (Ch: Ganzi ) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture where all Tibetan private schools had been ordered closed and children enrolled in Chinese medium residential schools by April 2022. 

A similar notice has now been issued in Dzatoe (Ch: Zadoi) County in Kyegudo (Ch: Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture early this year by local school authorities and the county government. The letter requires all parents in the county to send their school-age children to government schools from 2017 to 2023, failing which the students will lose all educational benefits and the parents will be prosecuted in accordance with the educational regulations.

Parents are also made to sign a letter of commitment (see below] to obey the “Compulsory Education Law” by enrolling their children in government residential schools. Those parents that refuse to sign the commitment letter will face “legal consequences”. Sources in Tibet told TCHRD that almost 80 percent of Tibetan children have all been enrolled in government schools and the remaining children will face the same fate by the end of this year, as local authorities force more parents to sign the commitment letter.

Notice issued in Dzatoe (Ch: Zadoi) County requiring parents to send their children to government schools or face prosecution and loss of educational benefits.
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